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tv   Vietnam POW Wives  CSPAN  July 6, 2019 12:36pm-2:01pm EDT

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war era and hear from former pow wives who joined forces on behalf of their captive and missing husbands. heath hardage lee is the author of "the league of wives: the untold story of the women who took on the u.s. governmetn to -- u.s. government to bring their husbands home." she is joined by two members of the national league of families of american prisoners and missing in southeast asia. the richard nixon presidential library and museum hosted this event. >> good morning, welcome to richard nixon's presidential library. i am with the richard nixon foundation. on this memorial day, we honor the fallen, and appropriately we honor those who were missing or killed in action during the vietnam war, a narrative which -- an era in which president nixon was commander-in-chief. this week marks the 46th anniversary of when the president and first lady welcomed the american prisoners of war held captive in vietnam, and their spouses and their
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mothers at what is still considered the largest dinners ever held at the white house. as president nixon said, it rained all day and much of the evening, and the south long was -- south lawn was soggy when the guests started arriving for dinner. many of the women's long dresses got splattered with mud, but nothing would dampen the spirits of that night." in the first year of his presidency, nixon met with the wives and mothers of the pows during the christmas season. he wrote that the women spoke respectfully and passionately about the need to get their husbands and sons returned home to american soil. "from that time on, each pow was an individual to me, obtaining their release became a burning cause." our distinguished speaker on this memorial day will tell this important story. her name is heath hardage lee. she is a historian, writer, and museum curator, and holds a ba in history with honors from davidson college, and an ma from the university of virginia. a 2017 robert j --
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curatorial fellow, and her first book one the 2015 colonel dames of america annual book award and the 2015 gold medal nonfiction from the independent publisher awards. her new book is a topic of today's discussion, it is called "the league of wives: the untold story of the women who took on government to bring their husbands home." she will be joined in discussion with other wives of prisoners of war. and the director of the campus university and co-curator of mia allies and advocates, a special exhibit which is coming soon to the richard nixon presidential library. ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor to introduce to the nixon library stage heath hardage lee. [applause]
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ms. lee: thank you so much, jonathan, and i want to thank byron forbill, jim hosting us on this beautiful this fantasticr event celebrating the pow mia wives. i am just going to give a short talk to set the scene for our panel discussion, which will follow, and then introduce our panelists, moderator, and some special guests that we have here today. so a quick refresher course, or maybe introductory course for those of you too young to remember the vietnam war, the american war in vietnam was not the first. the french battle the vietnamese before us and lost in a bloody
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in 1954. the battle the 1954 geneva accord divided vietnam into the north and the south. the emperor control the south, and the north was controlled by ho chi minh. by 1955, the emperor was pushed out, and of ireland anti-communist took over. presidentported by eisenhower, our hedge against communism in the region. u.s. -- we were getting into our own war with vietnam. , many pilotsis war were shot down -- i am going to mainly talk about those involved in the air war over vietnam. the mostly navy and air force pilots were the ones shot out of the sky over vietnam, and they
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would make up the pows, the majority -- not all, but the majority of the prisoners of war and many of the missing during the american war in vietnam. now, the women i talk about in the league of wives in this story, we are going to get back to the 1950's, to the world war two era. that is when these protocol guides are created -- the navy wife, the army wife, the marine wife, the air force wife. they are protocol guides with lots of good, topical information about deployments, making up the navy and army air force households, but they also have not-so-subtle social prescriptions and even a bit of propaganda that, as a navy wife for instance, your job is to make sure he can do his job.
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them and today's eyes, they seem a little antiquated. but they serve multiple purposes. the wives in my book, many of them, including the woman at the center of the book, this was their bible as young military -- rank,how to act hierarchy, all of that. these protocol guides are what i started with when i started working on this book to understand the midcentury wife and how they thought about things. when vietnam comes along, these protocol guides go out the window and the wives have to create their own rulebooks. thesethe very center of stories, the story really revolves around them. these 1950's, there are midcentury navy couples -- i call them the idea fighter pilot
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and the idea fighter pilots wife. jim was u.s. naval academy class of 1947. civil is from connecticut, highly educated, one of the best women's schools in the country. unknowingly, they had this time they had a lovely kind of 1950's military wife and existence, before vietnam, where civil was able to gain her footing as a military wife. septemberas shot down 9, 1965, this all changed in a heartbeat. they were based out of coronado at that time. at the highest ranking naval 's wife in the area, it was obvious among the lives and the family communities, would take -- sybil over. your rank as a wife was reflected as your husband's
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rank. she took over, and that was not questioned. that was the way it would have worked in any situation like that at the time. so when this happens at the beginning of this conflict, first we had jfk, jfk is assassinated, johnson takes over as president and the vietnam war is really starting to heat up. what was interesting about the lbj administration -- and this was a policy, really, that had gone on before then. i really can't blame lbj for this -- there was something called to keep quiet policy. the policy was if your husband was shot down or your son, brother, whatever was shot down in the air or went missing, you were not allowed to talk about it, as a military wife or a military family. nothing. only under your host family members could you discuss the situation. this is untenable after not too
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long -- how could you go on with your daily life, not telling anyone your husband had been shots down and you did not know what was happening? under lyndon johnson, this policy was enforced. lyndon johnson also would not meet with the wives, he occasionally would meet with them, but only for photo op ops like this one, where you see sybil -- it was a shake your hand and how to you do and he was on to the next thing. keen for photo ops, but really was not wanting to meet with the wives. wanted to sweep this under the rug, because vietnam is the war that did not look good for him. great onhnson was domestic policy, the civil rights act, not so good on foreign policy -- vietnam became his blind spot and eventually the lilt -- killed his political career. so the the wives --
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birthplace of the pow mia movement is an coronado. -- in coronado. the birthplace of the movement was around civil strap field, around her dining room table -- this is where the wives meet. this is where they first come together on october 7, 1966. the big question on the table among the wives in attendance is , are we wives or are we widows? many of them don't know. this was the days before gps, before facetime and twitter. they do not know where their husbands are. some know, some do not. many do not know. they are sharing information, comfort, bonding -- they are not doing anything political or organizing at this point. they are just hanging out and being together. as they would add an officer's
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wives club. but this continues, it grows, and it will grow into a movement and the san diego leave of wives -- league of wives, which i will tell you about in a minute. i would be remiss if i did not mention bob burress. bob burress is kind of the james bond of this story. he is the naval intelligence, contact- intelligence for the wives in the area, and many wives i interviewed on the east coast had become involved in this story. at the time, you remember the keep quiet policy, the state department and the defense department were very siloed. no one was talking to each other about how to help the prisoners of war that are missing. everyone was very distrustful of each other. bob was one of the few people that saw that these wives were a huge asset. they might be the key to
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unlocking the puzzle of what was going on with the pows. he was very smart that way. ybil andd with s many of these other wives. he was first telling them everything he knew about what was going on, was very honest with the wives. second, more importantly, he taught a lot of these wives to code secret letters to their husbands in prisons like the hanoi hilton. civil in particular --s s was veryarticular good at this, and one of the words that came back was that the pows would be tortured horribly, and the north vietnamese were lying about this, saying they were treated royally. it was not true. bob was crucial in teaching the wives the code and getting this information through to naval
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intelligence. some moving along quickly, under --sident nixon, who comes in he is elected in 1968, lbj says he is not running, the vietnam war has put a nail in his political coffin, so president , and ismes in, he wins very shortly thereafter clued in by ronald reagan and the governor of california, and others in the area that this issue of the pow mia wives is a crucial one, and one he really needs to pay attention to. sybil has gone public about her husband's situation. this is before the government has given them any real support, but with the approval of naval
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intelligence, she goes forward with that information. when nixon is elected, right after he is elected, sybil and her league of wives from san diego that is leading the charge for the pow mia cause they lose deluge him with telegrams. they say, you must pay attention to the pow mia issue. it is crucial. floodnds of telegrams nixon and his administration, and they reply to every telegram, showing they are going to take this issue very seriously. inthis slide here, we are december 1969. this is when the government is really on board with acknowledging the situation that the pows were being tortured, which was covered up during the lbj administration for fear it negotiations with
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the north vietnamese. under nixon, these ladies helped the nixon administration realized they must go public. ins is what turns the tide terms of the torture stopping -- john mccain told me that himself. it was like a light switch going off, because these women went public in the newspapers. they went to paris to confront the north vietnamese. they spoke all over the place -- many of the ladies here today can tell you about that later. policy,is go public things start to change tremendously for the better for pows, and for the missing in action. not do this talk without mentioning senator bob dole, who is one of the biggest allies of the pow mia wives. we have audrey coleman here usay, who has worked with extensively to bring in exhibit to life about the league of wives.
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because senator dall was so key in helping these women with no one -- who no one else would to theenator dole came floor and realized -- he was very empathetic because he was a world war ii combat veteran. he realized these women were getting no help. when i interviewed senator dole several years ago, he told me even in 1969, nobody knew what a pow or mia was -- incredible. at that point, people still did not know or perhaps did not want to know what was going on with that scenario. he helped that cause tremendously, and the other person you see here with civil is theield -- sybil texas millionaire, now billionaire that spent a lot of his money and time on helping these women. the picture when was taken, the san diego league of wives that sybil has created
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has connected with wives all over the state to lobby for the prisoners of war and missing. iny are incorporated in d.c. june 1970, they have a spot to operate out of, they have the support of senator dole, of president nixon. it's just a tremendous, tremendous change from the johnson administration. and here, i always -- i call this, "you have come a long way any one of you remembers that old virginia slims cigarettes campaign. we have come a long way from the johnson administration and we are here with president nixon, henry kissinger, the other two ladies here, maureen dunn, to the left is an mia wife, phyllis sitting next to henry kissinger is an east coast wife for my hometown of richmond, virginia. the way i got into this story. they are having one of their
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regular conferences. henry kissinger at this point is meeting bimonthly with the wives to give them updates, to tell them what is going on, to keep them informed. sybil is the first national coordinator of this national league of families. at this point, the name is now the national league of families for american servicemen -- i am sorry, for american prisoners and missing in southeast asia. and it is huge and national. it has become a huge deal, and the women have a huge amount of influence and i think power, in terms of diplomacy and lobbying for their husbands now. they have the ear of the president and have a way to make a huge difference in their husbands' lives. not to spoil the story for people who might not know, most people here know that the
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-- the him war ends vietnam war ends, the peace treaty of 1979 is signed. the paris peace treaty is signed and people are coming home. here we see the stockdale homecoming on february 15 of 1973. jim stockdale comes home and here he is seen with his family meeting him on the tarmac. sid, the first boy, would be there later today after he won his championship hockey game. so they are all reunited that night. , to goson there is this back to the paris peace treaty, it is not always conditional that the prisoners missing are really accounted for. or that the enemy is held to repay treating. one of the things these women did was require the repatriation of the pows. and the best possible accounting of the missing -- that was one
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of the great achievements of the national league, that was a requirement before the peace treaty could be signed, and something, of course, richard nixon could support. but before jim walked off the plane -- i have to mention on february 14, he had sent sybil a dozen american beauty red roses just to remind her of his love and that she was tremendous and amazing. he did not even know the extent of what she had done until he came home. then he did understand that fully. the nixon p.o.w. gala, which jonathan referenced a little bit earlier -- you can watch it on youtube, i have watched it 20 times. may 24 of 1973, 1300 people, prisoners of war, their wives, girlfriends, and mothers were invited to the largest dinners still to this day ever held at the white house. it was on the south lawn under tents.
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there were movie stars. john wayne, entertainers -- bob hope, sammy davis junior. politicians like kissinger, of course. it was very glamorous. everyone wearing beautiful gowns. it was a pow food fantasy come true in terms of food. they had steaks, potatoes, strawberry mousse -- it was just an amazing evening. but the most important thing of the evening, at least from my perspective as a scholar of women's history, was nixon's toast, which was not made to the returning pows, but was made to their wives. he said, "gentlemen, to the first ladies of america, the first ladies." that is the hollywood ending to the story, but it is not really the end. the end of the story is never ending. the missing in action. so after the war was over, we
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wanted the best possible accounting of missing in action. but after the fall of saigon it was impossible to really get in there and find that for a number of years. today there are so many stories -- i have seen recently when abc had a wife who i had interviewed, her husband came back after 50 years. the dna, everything being done by the defense department and in terms of identifying remains, we are still having missing men returning from that time so long ago, 50 years ago. so that continues. and many of us -- today, jenny connell robertson being an example -- her husband jj did not come back. he was killed in action, he was a prisoner of war. he did not return. many like marie, who is also here, her husband did not return. so we cannot ever forget that. sybil's national league ended in
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1973 with bringing the pows back. the missing in action, there is still a national league today. they focus on the missing in action and identifying them and returning them home. i want you to remember, though, if you remember anything from this talk, that these pow mia wives, under the leadership of stockfield, demanded that the prisoners be brought home, the missing be accounted for, and they changed the treatment in the prison camps. if it had not been for the pr, going public as danny schechter -- as sybil did at great risk of herself, things would have not ended well for a number of pows. john mccain told me many more men would have died in prison without these women and their courageous efforts to go public on behalf of the missing and prisoners of war. remember that. we will tell you more in just a
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second with our panel. i do want to move on to that and introduce you to two panelists and also i want to acknowledge these people. to do of her children are there. i want to acknowledge his wife taylor stockdale. we are so happy to have you here . we so appreciate you coming to support us. yes. [applause] yes, round of applause. [applause] this whole family could not have been more supportive of my efforts to tell the stories, so thank you so much for that. i also want to acknowledge patsy, one of our panelists, one of the p.o.w. wives in my book. she has hurt herself, as the league of wives is bound to do,
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some of the other wives are stepping in to help today. we are going to have debbie burns henry join us in her place. i first want to introduce you to jenny robertson, who laid the wreath at nixon's grave. she was a navy wife with two young children when her husband was shot down in 1966, only two weeks before his scheduled return home. under the leadership of a senior navy wife, jenny and numerous other p.o.w. wives formed the san diego league of wives in 1957. she was one of the founding members of this organization, which had become the national league of families for prisoners
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missing in southeast asia in 1970. we talked about this earlier today, but after spending 1,645 days in captivity, navy lieutenant commander jj o'connell died at the hands of the north vietnamese in 1971. his remains were returned to the u.s. in 1974. debbie, debbie burns henry, another one of my friends and also one of the league of wives, one of the founding members in the san diego area, was 30 years
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old when her husband was shot down, i believe 1966. she had three young children at home. it was a lot to take, but she also, along with so many of these other wives, came together as founding members to help civil start this important cause -- sybil start this important cause. moderating today is audrey coleman, the associate director of museum and archives at the robert dole institute of politics in lawrence, kansas. senator bob and elizabeth dole's historical connections in promoting the legacy. she is the project director for the exhibit, league of wives, allies, and advocates. it was unveiled at the dole institute in 2017 and travel to sites around the country. she also is a current member of the humanity kansas speakers. desha speakers bureau and echo
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-- speakers bureau. i didn't know that, wow. very cool. let me invite audrey and the league of wives to the states. [applause] audrey: thank you for that warm welcome. my name is audrey coleman. i'm with the dole institute of politics and i'm extremely honored to be here with you all, with the ladies of the national league. what an incredible experience it's been to learn your stories. very honored.
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i also want to make mention of the idea, could there be a more daunting task to moderate a discussion with a group of indomitable women? [laughter] audrey: we will have a great time. debbie and patsy, would you tell us -- this is debbie here to my immediate left, and jenny connell robinson. would you tell us a little bit about, how long have you been married when the vietnam war started and prior to finding out your husband had been missing? >> [inaudible] we were married nine years. and my children were seven, five, and two when he left. it was october 4, 1966 and i didn't know if he was alive for sure until 1971.
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he did return in 1973. >> how about you? how long had you been married and how long had you known your husband prior? >> we were married four years before he left on the cruise. and we had two children, my daughter, who is in the audience now. she was three years old when her father left. so luckily, when he was shot down, the north vietnamese took a picture and published it. so that was wonderful because then i knew he was alive. or at least alive at that point. now, he did not write any letters and i found out after the guys came back, why. it was just the four years. and then i didn't find out until
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1973 that he had died in captivity. >> do you remember the day you find out your husband was unaccounted for? thank you do tell us a little bit about that, what you remember? >> the night that i was notified? i was having dinner about a block away with a friend of mine and it was about 8:00 at night and she got a phone call from one of my neighbors and said you need to go home, somebody wants to buy your used car. i was thinking, who wants to buy a car in the dark? [laughter] anyway, we went in the house. i didn't see any cars.
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there was a knock on the door. as soon as i saw the shoulder bars, i knew. that was october 4, 1966. >> do you remember what you first thought or felt in those moments, both of you, after you heard the news about your husband? >> i'm embarrassed to say i collapsed. i just went down to my knees. i kept saying no, no, no. the chaplain was wonderful. he came and sat next to me and they said, he landed in a waterway and i said, he's a good swimmer, maybe he could make it to the gulf, and you can pick him up there? i had no idea. [laughter] the chaplain would come visit me once a week and it really was a comfort to me and the children. >> the children didn't understand war. they just understood south vietnamese soldiers in camouflage. one might daughter was five years old, we were driving near the air station and she saw the marines out there having their field exercises and she saw the camouflage and said there is the war. we can go over there and get daddy.
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[laughter] >> what was your reaction after seeing the photo or hearing the news? >> i was on the east coast at the time and i was with my husband's family. i was a navy wife and when they come to the door, they're not coming for any good reason. so, i knew immediately that that was probably it. and of course, they tell you he was shot down. we don't know you if he's dead or alive. we'll let you know. so, as soon we could collect ourselves, the two children and i returned home. and you're in shock. you just don't realize the gravity of it. it took a while for that to really sink in because you're in such shock. i think your mind just protects you. and later on it doesn't. it's hard. it was an easy.
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and -- wasn't easy. and i have to tell just one little story. he was shot down in july. just three months later, i went over to debbie's house because you just take care of each other. and we were already in this group, this reluctant sorority. >> the reluctant sorority. >> and i went over there to comfort her and said you're going to live. it's going to be ok. now it's 50 years later. >> she had a wonderful sense of humor, and she was smiling and laughing. everything is going to be fine. i said how can she laugh? i couldn't laugh for six months, and then i felt guilty when i did. but thank goodness. she said you're one of us.
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>> nobody wanted to be in that club. >> was it difficult to find other women who were in your situation? or did you know those in the military community? how did you come together? >> i lived at the air station, and so did a few of the other girls. we bonded together right away. i moved to san diego in 1968. about two months later, i met sybil and i remember sitting on her living room floor. she was so maternal with all of us. >> how does the california experience compare with some of the other groups of women, geographically, across the country? did they have these tightknit communities? >> very good question. just to be clear, and you'll see this in the book, it all started here on the west coast. there's been confusion how it started. i tried to lay the timeline out.
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it starts with sybil and her league of wives, san diego area and the west coast, and then it spreads. it spreads to the east coast. the virginia beach community, the norfork a year station -- norfolk air station, is kind of sybil's east coast counterpart. but she comes in later to the story. sybil starts everything, founds everything, and sends these newsletters out that get to people all over the place. then it gets to the east coast, and then it comes to the colorado area with the air force
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wives. and then it sweeps across the country, really when she goes public in 1968. she is the brave one that is willing to do that, to go to the paper, to use the media. and then it's like wildfire. everybody feels like it's ok to talk some more about it. >> and if you could realize that that was such a great thing to do because it's going to affect your husband, right? you've got to think, do i want to do this? do i need to do this? if it hadn't been for sybil, i don't think i would be sitting here. >> everyone i think acknowledges that all across the country. everybody said sybil is the
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reason it worked. and it was great because you worry if this would compromise them with the north vietnamese, or what about if they came back? it could ruin their careers. a lot of people, and i know she felt this way, the important thing is to get the word out and help them. forget about rank and all that. but some of the other ones i interviewed, that was a concern. could it ruin my career later? so it was an extremely brave thing to do and done with a lot of thought before hand. >> and she was an experienced naval wife. so with her experience, she just took us under her wing, 25-26 years old. >> they were babies. they were very young. sybil was a senior. she was in her 40's at that point. >> she was. she was much more experienced.
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she was just a dynamic woman. i'm sorry you can't meet her. >> tell us more about what a meeting of the naval wives might look like. were you very regimented and organized? tell us a little bit, maybe a particular memory? >> i don't think we were that organized. it was just really coming together because you were in the same situation. you walk and have a situation in your life and it will have more meaning when you talk to someone going through that. you can understand each other without having to say i'm having a really bad day. you just bond that quickly. and so that's how -- it was very casual at first. we were down here, karen butler and i came down in 1967 and met sybil then. so, it was a casual thing at first. as things progressed, it morphed into something more structured. >> and we should also acknowledge we have karen butler and marie in the front row. i won't make them stand up and embarrass them, but later they
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might join in some of the key when day because -- key when day -- q&a, because they were very involved. they tried to get the press involved. we'll get into that later, but these ladies are really important to that cause also. >> i remember telling you that other than our children, this group of women was the stabilizing factor and we probably wouldn't have made it without them. >> definitely. a lot of the women said it was almost like blood sisters because he didn't have to explain. there was so much, you just didn't want to do that and you immediately understood each other. >> especially if you're talking to people that don't know about the war. you didn't have to worry about things. my husband is a pow, once that -- what's that? what is that? and made a circle the wagon, so to speak. >> what kind of communication, if any, did you get from the military, the defense
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department? any kind of updates? any kind of information stream about the status of your men and what you might expect? >> initially, there was a telegram and it just stated the facts that your husband was shot down. i remember the chaplain saying to me, children can take a yes or a no, but they can't take a maybe. so until the end of the war, tell them he's alive right now. so we did. fortunately, he came home. >> this is a situation that goes on for years, not a day or a week or a month you're living in this uncertainty and not getting updates or communication at all. >> one other story, i don't know why i keep wanting to tell stories, but when we were still in there and the children were young, they didn't understand what p.o.w. was and they would be around when we were having
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our meetings and we would talk about dad, prisoner, he's in jail. when my daughter drew a picture for school of her dad with the bars, you know that they can comprehend that he sits in jail. and we left soon after that. it's a very depressing place to be. >> a lot of the children told me stories like that. they were even teased, your dad is in jail. people didn't understand because it was like so many people didn't even know, didn't even know there were prisoners of war. it was a denial, and ignorance, and unpopular situation. >> in 1968, goes public with the san diego union, five years later after living like this. how did that change your activities with the san diego league? did you become more visible?
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did you talk to the press? >> all this. we all made speeches, up in l.a., san diego, interviews, whoever would listen. >> do you have any good examples or any particular incidences that stick out in your mind of readings or rallies you spoke at? >> i remember being invited on the regis philbin show in los angeles. and when i came outside, my daughter said mom, your face is orange. they put so much makeup on and said your face is orange. [laughter] >> if you went on the phil donahue show -- was that karen? was that you? >> i don't know who did that. >> and then sybil went on dick cavett and that didn't go well. i don't think they broadcast that. and the today show, there was an
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interview with sybil and barbara walters and hugh downs. it was amazing how much time they gave her, how sympathetic. they were both externally sympathetic to that. so the tv and the news starts picking up these talks you're doing and debbie and others have told me how shy some of you work. that would be interesting to talk about, how getting up in front of those people was so scary. >> my first speech was a 7:00 a.m. breakfast at a lions club, and john mccain's brother,, joe mccain was sitting next to me. and my legs were shaking so much. i can't do this. he said you'll be fine. he'll be fine. [laughter] and that was the first time a gentleman said, p.o.w.? what say p.o.w.? this was four years after.
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>> there was some activities at the defense department, when they were doing the roadshow. i remember you saying it. can you tell us about the roadshow and what they did and how you felt about it? >> there isn't a whole lot to tell. they showed up. they didn't come with any information. you saw that they wanted us to be quiet. it could affect your husband, so don't say anything. we have each other to talk to, but nobody else. and then after a while, the navy realizes we're going to have to placate these women because they are getting noisy and you don't want them to tell them you guys, settle down and we'll handle things. not only the navy, but don't worry. we'll handle it. we'll let you know.
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>> mansplaining, right? >> well, yeah. i mean, we know that they knew more than us. but i don't know if they thought we were stupid, uneducated or what. >> they were concerned we would go public. they wanted to tamp it down. and the roadshow, everybody called them the washington roadshow. it's sort of an inside joke, like they were a traveling circus and they didn't know a whole lot. >> i don't know that they knew more than we did, but if they did, they didn't tell us. there's the key right there. it did bother us, why make a big deal of this if you're not going to come out with some
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information for it? >> heath mentioned the gentleman who did the letter coding. neither of you worked with him. is that right? you did, debbie? can you tell us about what you can tell us about that? >> my father-in-law died six weeks after my husband was shot down and i received a phone call, and my sister-in-law said he is going to be buried at arlington on saturday. this is a tuesday. i said ok. the next day, i got a phone call. he said when you come to arlington on saturday, i want you to come to the pentagon. i said, who is this? he said commander robert burroughs. and then i remembered my husband had said, by the way, if anything ever happens, you'll get a phone call from naval intelligence. don't ask any questions. just do what they tell you. i asked him, how did you know i was going to be in arlington on
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saturday? he said debbie, we know everything since you wet your first diaper. [laughter] that was scary. i wasn't allowed to tell anybody where i was going. i had to get a cab over to the pentagon and we went up an elevator and into this very small room, and he wrote something on a piece of paper and explained to me the code i would be doing in the letters. and then he would come out every couple months and give me a new code and change. it was wonderful. >> so you were able to get information to your husband? and you got responses back? >> it was seven lines, like the airmail does seven lines. it would take me almost half a day to write a letter because the way they did the code, i don't want to explain right now, but it was complicated to make
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sense of the letter while you're doing all this inside of it. but yeah. >> i'm curious, do you remember what you wrote? what would you write in seven lines every couple of months? >> mostly about how he was doing, hoping he was ok, what the children were doing in school, things like that. general information to keep his spirits up. >> well, sybil talked about how this would emotionally wipe her out. it was so intricate to code these letters, and also how it was a violation of any kind of personal relationship you had. not a violation, it was necessary. everybody understood that. >> a little interference. >> yeah. it wasn't like a love letter. you couldn't do that.
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it was unsettling for her to have everybody reading the letters, but of course she understood that was the only way to get the coding and get these messages through. but it wiped everybody out, emotionally, to have to do that. >> so, when richard nixon becomes president, do you remember an appreciative change in conduct and communication with you all about this issue? can you tell us a little bit about how -- >> yes, we did. we'd have more meetings and bob was wonderful. uncle bob, he made you feel there was somebody someplace in that government and the navy that cared about us. and he did. he did. he gave us as much information as he could. >> i think sybil kept us up to date with what was going on with president nixon when she would go back and visit. we went back one or two times, but she was the one spokesman for that. and she was very encouraging because he was encouraging to her.
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>> and i think at that point, too, a lot of the east coast wives did more because they were geographically so much closer. phyllis, who is in the book, the way i got into this story was the connection with phyllis, who was from roanoke, but in my hometown of richmond, she shared that. she went all the time because she was so close. you guys were far away. sybil went to d.c. for a year to take over as position of the coordinator, meet with kissinger and nixon. other people would take on the role as national coordinator in washington, d.c. at that point, it did shift to
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the east coast. >> 1970, what started out as the league of wives, officially becomes the national league of families of prisoners missing in southeast asia. sybil has already met with richard nixon in 1969. did either of you go to washington in the spring of 1970? there were a couple of rallies. tell us about your visits to washington during the time. >> the may event. i didn't. my friend, maria, and i, and our five kids went to paris at that time for the first peace talks. and went to the embassy hoping to get information about our husband and she is still considered mia. >> and going to the peace talks, sybil did this, as well, was a major way the press caught onto this issue because the wives would go to confront at the embassies, but it was also for
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publicity purposes, the media would pick up on your plight and broadcasting to the world. so these all had multiple angles to them. >> get the word out. spread the word and people were more receptive to talk to us. we had tables a lot of times set up to get petitions. >> the mal the pii -- the mail, the petitions were huge. dumping mail in front of the doors was a great simple things needed to be done, and it brought a lot of attention to the issue. >> what embassies did you visit? >> the north vietnamese. and it was rather planned, as far as once we got there, we were staying with people.
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and then they then gave us connections with the media. and the media then followed us to the embassy. in some ways, i feel really terrible about it because the kids were carrying pictures of their dad. and they were little. i think the oldest was 10. two seven's and two five-year-olds. they don't know a whole lot but they have pictures of their dad and they know they are trying to get information. they never did talk to us. they would not let us in, but we did have the media coverage. >> that would be my next question. they let you -- they didn't let you in. you knock on the door and they don't answer? >> they said no, they wouldn't see us. >> sybil did manage to get in and meet with some of the folks, but they would not tell you anything, and it was a
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consulate, not really an embassy. but they did meet, it was we know nothing. we can't help you, but we know all about you. they made sure to tell sybil they knew all about her activities. obviously, that was a little unsettling, but worth it for immediate purposes. far more effective anything our government was doing during the johnson administration to get the guys out. well worth doing in the end. >> and there were times that we knew that we were being monitored. by who, we're not sure. but we would be on the phone with each other and there would be clicks. >> about a month after the war was over. [laughter] [talking over each other] >> felt a little bit uncomfortable not knowing who was listening. >> did you ever feel physically in danger?
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did you feel like you were being threatened? >> no. no, never did. >> never that i can think of. >> the surveillance, though -- >> we were cautious about them. we would say things over the phone, and then we would laugh and say we know you're listening. >> we know you're there. [laughter] >> didn't have those clicks before. >> you guys are smart ladies. >> not that stupid. [laughter] >> one-story, too, though, that i loved, karen butler was involved in, was how bob burroughs asked them to tape some of the state department meetings, so they wore wires in their bras. showing how disassociated all the government departments were.
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everybody was kind of spying on each other, and that was the only way bob could know what was going on in naval intelligence. >> what i comment. -- what a comment. >> more power to you. you got to do what you got to do. i did tell henry kissinger about it. he said oh no, that didn't happen. it did. there wasn't -- >> they never make connections. >> and the wiretapping, this was under johnson. when nixon comes in, things open up because you had gone public at that point. that was during the key quiet period, so things change quite a bit from lg -- lbj to nixon. things were quite loud. >> you mentioned about senator dole and the may day rally in washington. >> the may day rally, may 1, 1970. this is the second rally in d.c. that senator dole and east coast, west coast wives, sort of
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the leadership and what would become the national league, they had tried to get the families of prisoners were missing together in a rally. the first rally in february failed miserably. there were 300 people that showed up. and senator dole and sybil said this is not acceptable. we are going to fix this. we are going to fill constitution hall. this is the daughters of the american revolution headquarters there. that hall is huge, it seats 3000, 4000 people.
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so senator and elizabeth dole ally together, and they fill that hall with over 3000 p.o.w. mia family members on may 1. and this is what i call the national league's coming out party, when it's about to be incorporated. and when the east coast and west coast merge together, the speaker that everyone remembers the most is a woman named louise mulligan. her husband is one of the famed alcatraz 11 pows, along with jim stockdale and others. louise is equally feisty, equally determined. she's part of the league
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leadership. she gets up on the stage and says in a very loud voice, mayday, mayday. help. please help. hear our cries from the prison walls. she galvanizes everybody. it's just electrifying from everybody i interviewed that was there from getting the families to fuse together to push the last couple of years to get the guys accounted for and bring the pows home. and it has a huge impact on washington and all the folks that are there from the nixon administration. they were listening before, but nowthey're really listening. they're giving these ladies more of a platform to get the word out. it's highly effective and memorable. >> as the work goes on, do you have any contact with antiwar protesters or groups from the
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left, or any resistance there? because the national league is a nonpartisan humanitarian organization, so you're not taking sides here. you're trying to get your family members home. did you have engagement with folks who were antiwar? >> not directly. i mean, not that they would call. but you knew that they were out there. >> cora weiss, didn't you deal with cora weiss? >> not directly, i didn't with her. we knew about her and her political views. the same with jane fonda. >> jane fonda. and of course we were more upset about her because she went to north vietnam. she had given to her, and her hand by one of the pows, papers that had the names of the pows. and she turned it over to the north vietnamese. and so i'm never -- i can forgive her. i can't forget ever what she did. that's just completely unpatriotic as far as i'm concerned. anyway. we were upset. the news, for what their views were. they didn't attack us. >> debbie, did you have something he wanted to say? >> i remember the children and i would sit at a card table with four chairs and ask people to sign a form, a letter we were sending to north vietnam to abide by the geneva convention. a lot of people said he had no
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reason to go. maybe he volunteered. but most people were very kind. >> i know marie had some interactions with cora weiss, who i talk about a fair amount in the book. so, cora weiss, according to interviews i did, the view a lot of ladies had was that cora was exploding the pow mia families for her own purposes, which were, like jane fonda, cora weiss was really allied with the north vietnamese and really supported them even though she was an american citizen. that was who she was supporting. and cora weiss would bring letters through. she became the only conduit at a certain time for letters getting through to the camps, but that came at a price. she would force the p.o.w. wives
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to consume this propaganda about her organization. she would give your names and phone numbers out. louise mulligan had that experience without your permission. and she was renouncing marie's husband, announced he was dead on national television. the government didn't have a chance. they didn't know and they couldn't confirm or deny it. you gave a good quote about she had us over a barrel. you would do anything to get that information through, but there was a price to be paid in terms of the propaganda you are subjected to. i had a lot of interviews about that, and of course jane fonda, famously sitting on the antiaircraft gun in that photo. >> actually dealing with ross perot, he was very supportive. he took letters for us.
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>> yes, ross did a lot of that. >> yes, he did. he was wonderful. >> did politics ever come up within members of the national league? where there folks who got frustrated the way things were going, or did you feel you maintained cohesion, as it gets to be 1972 and the war still isn't over? >> i think our main purpose was trying to find out who was dead, who was alive, how they were, and how they were going to come home. that was our main focus all the time. >> everybody has a different outlook or emphasis in a situation. i think more so once it went to d.c. >> definitely. >> it just seemed to change a
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bit. maybe it was because we were still here in san diego. i think that might've had something to do with it. we weren't involved in that. almost like it took it away. and so it was not the same organization that we were initially in. but it had to go national. otherwise i don't think we would've been as effective. >> i agree with that. i think it had to go national. it had to include everyone. >> not just for us, but for everybody to be aware. >> definitely. and it did start to splinter at the end in d.c. a lot of the wives, it had been seven, eight years. >> every day, you don't know if your husband is dead or alive. every day. >> i thought it was amazing, the league, its big strength was staying nonpartisan. it did until the very end. then it started to splinter a little bit. and then thank god the peace treaty was signed. but it was starting to fray and some of the women had split off and formed families for
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immediate release, which kushner founded. she was stumping for mcgovern. even people like jane denton, not sure in terms of their political allegiance, because they had been through so much. anybody would've felt that way. but the league did manage to hold it together, even to the end on that. >> for the main purposes, the main goal. >> well, i have a few more questions but i know there are folks in the ardennes's who likely have questions for the panelists. we have a couple other league members in the audience, if you would like to come up and answer questions. >> please come up. you come up.
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>> i won't twist your arm, but you are invited. >> we can ask you questions from here. >> jonathan, if you would like to start here. we have a question. >> [inaudible] >> yes. sure. >> [inaudible] >> ok, yeah. >> [inaudible] >> yes. >> [inaudible] >> yes, oh, i can tell you about that. so the keep quiet policy, you can't blame lyndon johnson for creating that. that had long been in place under kennedy. that had always been policy. in previous wars, prisoners will not -- were not held as long. so it made sense in terms of not wanting to put the prisoners in an even worse position.
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that's how it started out. but because prisoners were held for so long, they keep quiet policy after a while was not effective. and also because the north vietnamese were obviously torturing people who were not abiding by the geneva conventions, and what sybil and all these women were so smart in figuring out, going public, embarrassing the vietnamese made them look at, and that -- look bad, and that was the only way to provide accountability. as john mccain said, once these women went public. but the keep quiet policy had its origins before lyndon johnson. it was a long-standing policy to not say anything. he was just continuing a policy that had already been in place, but was not effective. >> [inaudible] >> oh, gosh, yes.
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i cannot remember the latest figure, but i think it was around 1300 and some. >> i don't know the number. >> that is the defense department does have the most exact numbers. it was around 1300 the last time i looked. certainly. >> [inaudible] it's the same situation with my mom. i'm vietnamese and i'm young generation. my dad, after the wartime, 1995, the communists took him to the jail, the concentration camp. same thing, my mom doesn't know
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where my dad is, so i related to you. and my name is thui, and i'm a filmmaker. i did documentary, "unforgotten," about the south vietnamese who are missing and who in the jail. that is my part one i delivery. it comes out 2015, and i went everywhere in the u.s. and university so we both can understand what's going on with us. i hope someday, in this library, we will screen my documentary. the second part is, i'm looking for american pow in the hanoi hilton, whatever they call, in the jail, because i want to do the part two, "unforgotten 2," how they treat in the jail of the communist. and i need your help. please. i need every information.
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i need your help, so i would like to meet you after. >> be happy to. >> i really honored and happy. thank you. >> be happy to do that. >> we have a question right here. >> i hope i articulate this well. how, with your activism, how did your parents, your siblings, cousins, did they give you support through all of this? or were they just sort of of the mindset that you keep quiet? this was a very interesting time to be alive and i thank you for what you have done in bringing this to the forefront. thank you. >> my parents were on the east coast and i was out here at the naval air station. and immediately after my
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father-in-law dies, i was back there in arlington, they wanted to know if i would like to come home with my children. and i said no, my family is in lenore. even in the very beginning, i just connected with the women. that was where i really felt comfortable. but i did tell them, and i told my family, they couldn't discuss it. they couldn't tell anybody. and they did and for a long time. they just said he was in vietnam. they didn't know what he was doing. i mean, they knew, but they couldn't tell anybody else. >> my mother had already passed away when she was 40, so she wasn't around, and my dad was still struggling with that years later. so, i was back east when i found
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out, and i couldn't wait to get back to be with my own kind, i guess. it just made you feel much more comfortable. >> yeah, it wasn't just the p.o.w. wives. our neighbors -- i lived in a cul-de-sac with six homes. three of them were shot down, three of the men, so the wives, and even the men that were still here, they were so supportive. they just couldn't do enough for us. it was very kind of them. >> we have a question right here. >> just for the record, long before missus stockdale started the ladies, there was an attempt to get publicity about the earliest pows. we're talking about a time when most of them were army people who had been captured or kidnapped in south vietnam. and there were a few of the flyers. we were just starting to bomb, and we finally had some pilots
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in there. but the effort to get publicity for that was opposed by the administration in washington at that time, the johnson administration. they would not do anything to help, and they actually tried to undermine whatever was done. and among the things that they had and refused to release was that the communists that beheaded american american prisoners and they had pictures of those prisoners, and they would not release them. and that's long before the families came about. the second observation, when you talked about the tremendous grouping of mothers, fathers, wives, children of the pows in washington that was put together
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primarily by senator dole. one of the most moving things in my entire life, and i've been around a long time, was when jack jones got up and saying -- sang to a huge auditorium of pow families. he sang the song -- >> dream the impossible dream. >> the impossible dream, right. there wasn't anybody in the entire place that didn't have tears rolling down their eyes. it was one of the most incredible moments ever. anyhow. i thought i would give you that for the record. one last thing. your trip to paris. there is a group desperately trying to stop that group to paris because we thought it would do more harm than good, and we lost out to the safety department. we had collected huge number of
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signatures, over a million of them, asking for decent support for the prisoners. and we wanted the ladies to go to places like stockholm, where there were still trading with the north. and we said, for god sake, take these things, send the ladies to stockholm and other countries doing business. unfortunately, the folks at the safety department overruled that, and instead sent them to paris. the petitions you gave were thrown in the basement of the embassy. >> we had contact with -- >> -- went to sweden. that eventually did happen. phyllis, one of the wives you both knew, she is on the cover. she's one of the east coast wives. she did take a trip to sweden. eventually, it did happen, but i agree with you. i think there was a lot of opposition for a while for those kinds of things. and there was a focus on paris at first, i think also because of the paris peace talks, because it would create more publicity.
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but eventually, the national league spans out and they have these european trips were people go all the way over europe to sweden. olaf did not help us at all. there was a movement to intern the pows in sweden in a neutral country, but he was allied with the communists and that's why that did not work. >> we have a question right here. >> thank you. i was wondering if the league was involved with -- program. >> yes, of course. so viva, the bracelets, what was funny about the bracelets, a lot of the wives -- and i remember -- oh, ginny has her bracelet, wonderful. i think it was phyllis and jane denton, they said. that's the
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dumbest idea they didn't know if that went with their image at first. viva was a student group out in california that came up with this idea. they were founded by a wealthy industrialist, bracelets for young people, where you would inscribe the name, the date of loss and all that on the bracelet. they are still very well known today. we have lots of them in our exhibit in different forms, but that was the most successful effort, bar none, at fundraising, and almost all that
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money went to the national league to find all kinds of things. not really running the league so much, but pr things, bumper stickers, other things that would bring attention to the plight. it was super successful. >> 5 million. >> 5 million, i think sold at the end. >> i'm still, to this day, getting emails from family members saying, my mother wore this bracelet. would you like to have it back? >> tremendous impact. >> it was. it was a lot of impact with bracelet. >> thank you. >> can i ask one more question of the panel before we wrap? with that, and this is a great segue to the conclusion of this session. can you tell us about the p.o.w. gala? debbie, did you attend? >> which? >> the p.o.w. gala, the homecoming gala? >> yes. >> can you tell us about it? >> not at the white house, we didn't go. my husband came home and we met at miramar air station. >> and ginny, you had a different experience?
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>> yes, i did. >> how did that change your relationship with the women? >> it just kind of had to change because once the husbands came home, those wives were then focusing on them. so then you kind of just gravitated to the women that were in your situation, like marie, and eventually karen, and you just stayed with them. and then, as we grow older, we're just getting back together and going closer again. >> thank you both and heath for participating in the panel. >> thank you. >> thank you, audrey. [applause] ♪ [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] [captions copyright national
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cable satellite corp. 2018] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2019] >> thank you all for coming. please check back for future events at nixon library.org. [inaudible] >> you can watch archival films on public affairs each week on reel america." here is a quick look at one of our recent programs. may, 1969. we were almost ready. man had orbited the moon once.
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commit manwe would to a lunar landing, there were a number of things to be worked out. this was the mission of apollo 10. in the words of its commander, tom stafford, to sort out all of the unknowns and prepare for a lunar landing. it was a veteran crew. commander tom stafford had gemini-- has flown on six and nine. john young had been on gemini three and gemini 10. ony would face problems apollo 10, problems that would be solved for apollo 11. most would be minor. but they would be solved. sermon --- young --
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cernan. job brought to the responsibility, even amazement. and through color television, they took us with them as they play their part in man's greatest adventure. areom stafford reports they go. we are coming up on the 22nd mark. 15. 14, team, 12. nine. on.nes 3, 2. we have liftoff. liftoff.
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films can watch archival on public affairs in their entirety on our weekly series reel america. p.m., here on:00 american history tv. up next, historians examine ideologies of power and u.s. foreign policy. topics include free-trade regulations, john quincy adams'views, white nationalism and the rise of anti-slavery republicans. this was part of a conference hosted by oregon state university. >> ok. we should get started. welcome to

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